HS2: Minister defends route plan

HS2 route Image copyright Department for Transport

The Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin has the look of a foot soldier who has been lifted from the muddy trenches and into high command.

The Derbyshire Dales MP is a pretty likeable guy who carries a warm smile. He also has the appearance of a veteran politician who is panic-proof.

He'll need those qualities. He now has the job of steering through the case for the proposed routes of the UK's high speed rail services from Birmingham to the Northern cities.

But it's his East Midlands backyard that could become tricky.

Tory colleagues in Leicestershire are outraged at the proposed route. Its county council leader Nick Rushton says for Leicestershire, it's all pain and no gain.

"I realise that part of the link will be unpopular. It is inevitable," Mr McLoughlin told me.

"You can't build a major infrastructure in this country without some problems and some people being against the plan.

"As a government, we've got to look at what is in the long term interest of the country."

The East Midlands hub for HS2 will be at Toton. It's commuter belt between Nottingham and Derby, and probably better known for its vast expanse of old railway sidings.

But is Toton the right location? Not according to the Labour leadership in Derby. They'll want the hub at the city's railway station. The Transport Secretary will need some persuading.

Image caption Mr McLoughlin said the route drawn up by the government was the best option

"The people who are working on HS2 haven't just come up one morning and drawn a line," he said.

"They've studied each detail of the route. The cost of reconfiguring Derby station for HS2 would have been substantial and it would have been incredibly disruptive."

Then there's the case for the hub at East Midlands Airport. The western leg of HS2 from Birmingham stops at Manchester Airport. So why was East Midlands Airport ruled out for the eastern route.

"One of the things we had to look at was connectivity, and the way we could best serve Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and the rest of the region," said the Transport Secretary.

"It's not so easy to do from East Midlands Airport. But if East Midlands Airport - which is owned by Manchester Airport - wants to come forward with a proposal, I'll look at it.

"But our plans are what we think is best for the route."

HS2 will also hug a long stretch of the M1 in Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire. This raises the need of shifting part of the motorway. It was only widened to an eight-lane motorway a few years ago.

'Expensive scheme'

The HS2 engineers call it realignment.

"There are certain areas where some realignment will have to be done," he added

"It is expensive. But then, this is an expensive scheme.

"The engineers say to me the line should go by the road network.

"There are very good reasons for the work we will need to do. We won't do the work unless it's necessary."

At £33bn, HS2 carries a big price tag. But could that cash be better spent on improving local transport?

"We are already going to electrify the Midland Main Line. HS2 will free up track space on the Midland Main Line. That's how you build up capacity and improve services.

"There's no way you can build a major railway of the nature of HS2 without upsetting some people.

"The size of the scheme, the importance of getting the route right is by far the most important thing for the government. And for the country."

As a politician, this Transport Secretary may have to draw on his reserves of Midlands pragmatism.

The first HS2 trains through the East Midlands may be 20 years away, but this is one big political issue that's not heading for the buffers.